Tag Archives: Sorry

What Bix Means to Me: Andy Schumm

The young trumpeter doesn’t just wax lyrical about Bix Beiderbecke for Jazz Matters; he’s written us a (controversial in parts) essay…

Bix Beiderbecke is quite possibly the most influential figure in the entire history of jazz. In this distinction, Bix joins the ranks of early jazz luminaries such as Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, Benny Goodman, and Bing Crosby.  Countless books and articles have been written on these musicians, dealing with both their music and their personas.  While much as been written about Bix as both man and musician, I always find myself coming back to the music much more than the personality. Bix stands alone in this list of influential musicians in that he was simply concerned with music more than much of anything else.

When we think of Louis Armstrong, one of the images that comes to mind is the showman and entertainer.  That is not to take anything away from his music. The same goes for Jelly Roll Morton, who was known to be an extremely active self-promoter.  We also hear of Benny Goodman’s colorful personality.  We envision the man who wields his 18 piece big band as effortlessly as his clarinet, yet was known to skimp on reeds.  I’ve heard stories about Benny picking up used reeds off the floor rather than buying a pack on his own.

Bing Crosby was also no slouch when it came to self-promotion.  That’s quite a toupée Bing’s wearing from the 1930s on.  When it comes to Bix, I really believe that there wasn’t much there besides the music.  Can you imagine Bix wearing a toupée?

Maybe this is the heart of why there is such as fascination for Bix as the man.  I’ll admit I wish I could have an hour with Bix, and ask him all of the burning questions I have about the records he made, the people he played with, and experiences on the road.  However, I think I’d be sorely disappointed.  Here’s how I envision it going down:

Andy: Did you intend to play that figure going into the piano solo on “Goose Pimples? Why did you blow sharp on the out chorus?

Bix: _ (shrugs)

Bix was certainly a kind person for the most part.  He was good to kids who would meet him backstage.  He would help other musicians having a bit of a hard time.  He loved his family in his own way.  However, I’m sure his first love was music.  We’ve all read the stories about Bix going to fool around on the piano on set breaks rather than going out back to smoke a joint or chase a girl.  I also think that he would sit at that piano all night regardless if the room was packed with alligators or if he was all alone.  It’s not enough to say that Bix was modest.  He just didn’t care.

Bix was also alone in his approach to music.  I believe that Bix was the first important jazz musician to be born out of records.  Today we take it for granted. If I want to go hear Red Nichols, I pull out one of my Brunswick 78s or a CD reissue, grab a beer, listen, and study.  When Louis Armstrong first got a cornet at the Waifs’ Home in New Orleans, there was no such thing as jazz in the sense we would understand.  He learned the to play the horn from a trained instructor in an appreticeship-like situation.  He played everything from marches to mazurkas.

Louis eventually found jazz playing alongside musicians such as Joe Oliver.  While Bix did receive intermittent instruction on the piano from a young age, it wasn’t until he heard those Original Dixieland Jazz Band records in the late 1910s that he went out and bought a cheap cornet and began imitating those other-worldly sounds eminating from the phonograph horn.

While someone with the innate talent of Bix’s would no doubt have ended up doing something in music, it was these first records that instantly changed his life, thereby becoming the first major jazz musician influenced mainly from records.

For evidence of this, refer to the majority of the “Bix and his Gang” records on the OKeh label.  Many of the tunes were pulled from the Original Dixieland Jazz Band’s library, rather than the current tunes of the day.  In 1928, he’s still using the “silent cowbell” ending found on the ODJB records of 10 years prior.  This ending had effectively gone out of fashion in the early 1920s.  Are these some of the first jazz repertory recordings?  Either way, it’s a major sea-change in the development of jazz.

Bix had such an unbelievable intensity in his music.  Contemporaries speak of it often.  Yet, when it comes to his personality, he’s passive.  Looking back 80 years since the time of his death, it’s hard to imagine such incredible music coming out of that meek-looking kid with the skinny fingers.  Admit it.  When I first saw that Fox Movietone film showing Bix standing up to play along with the Whiteman trumpet section, I couldn’t believe that this guy who cuts out early at the end of the phrase could be responsible for At the Jazz Band Ball or Sorry. Aside from the shock of seeing Bix move on film, I’m left even more puzzled as to how Bix really came to be.

Maybe that’s just how it is.  Bix was really just a guy who was obsessed with good music.  He made no airs about his stature in the jazz world, nor did he intentionally portray himself as the stereotypical struggling, socially-inept jazz musician who drinks too much.  All of us musicians get sidetracked from our music by other interests and distractions.  Bix had such a pure ideal about music.  As a musician, I can only try my best to live up to it.  When it comes down to it, Bix just was.  A rarity.  Something unattainable.

We sure could use a Bix Beiderbecke today.

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If I had to recommend two tracks the first would be Sorry – by Bix and his Gang. Listen to how effectively Bix leads the ensemble.  This is the characteristic that is most often lost today.  Bix was a better ensemble player than soloist, which is saying something!

And the other would be Paul Whiteman and His Orchestra’s recording of Gypsy. While this is not my overall favorite recording, it is one of my favorite Bix solo examples.  Listen for the economy of notes he uses in expressing the melody. It’s a rather obscure Bix cut, and I’d recommend you listen to the entire recording to get the full effect.  Don’t cheat and jump to the Bix solo…

Tomorrow: Marty Grosz.

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Our Boy Bix

Few jazz musicians inspire as much warmth and affection as Bix Beiderbecke, the legendary cornettist who died exactly 80 years ago.

Bix – it’s impossible not to refer to him by his first name, because those of us who love his music are also mad about this lost boy wonder – was one of jazz music’s first major casualties; a glorious talent which flared briefly but was burned out before his 30th birthday.

Nevertheless, in less than a decade’s worth of recordings, Bix made an indelible mark on the music.  His cornet sound is utterly unique and instantly identifiable: bright, golden and beguiling. Listen to any of the tunes which feature him and, even when he’s playing with an already impressive band, he lifts the whole sound when he comes in, and drives the ensemble.

I can’t think of a better example of the wonder of Bix in that context than the jubilant 1927 recording of Sorry (scroll down to hear it). It sounds great before Bix comes in, but when he does it’s like a light has been switched on and everything is illuminated.

His solos – which should be required listening for every jazz musician – are works of art, nothing less. Does it get any better than his spots on Jazz Me Blues and the exquisitely melancholy I’m Coming Virginia? I doubt it.

And then there are the piano pieces. You can’t talk about Bix without it being personal, and you certainly can’t talk about the piano pieces without noting that
Bix was an ahead-of-his-time composer with an ear for unusual harmonies, and a deep love of the music of Ravel and Debussy. And yet, he never did learn to read and write music – and he always remained a little at odds with convention, a rebellious figure who regularly tried, and failed (thankfully), to conform and fit in.

His individuality, which some tried to suppress, also drew fans and admirers to him like a magnet. “He opened roads to us – and brought forwards so much melody and harmony in his solo work that it opened all of our eyes,” said the trumpeter Doc Cheatham. At one point in the 1920s, as Doc recalled: “We all chased around trying to play like Bix, every one of us.” Louis Armstrong agreed, adding: “Ain’t none of them played like him yet. He was a born genius. They crowded him with love.”

Bix was an alcoholic from early in his career, when the bootleg gin flowed freely despite (or perhaps because of) Prohibition. He died on August 6, 1931 – at the age of just 28, having spent the last couple of years of his life either unwell, drying out or unfulfilled and frustrated in the Paul Whiteman band.

Almost immediately the legend of Bix sprang up, in books and on film. It’s difficult to gauge, through eight decades’ worth of cliches, hyperbole and mythology, exactly what Bix the man was like. All you can do is listen to the music and hear for yourself.

Some writers have bemoaned the fact that his premature death deprived us of more recordings; frankly, that thought has never occurred to me – his body of work comprises so many moments of sheer joy and heartbreaking loveliness, all of them endlessly appealing …

Each day this week, I’ll be posting the thoughts of a series of  Bix fans – musicians and writers –  about what Bix means to them, along with their favourite Bix tracks. Tomorrow: Warren Vache.

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